School Equalization

Rebekah Dobrasko


In 1951, under the governorship of James F. Byrnes, South Carolina began an extensive program to equalize and reform education in its black and white schools.  During his campaign for governor, Byrnes had called for an “educational revival,” promising to improve school buildings and education for all children in South Carolina (Byrnes, All in a Lifetime, 408).  Although Byrnes advocated changing education even before he became governor, Briggs v. Elliott, a lawsuit from Clarendon County that challenged segregation in South Carolina’s public schools, provided impetus to the General Assembly to address the poor state of South Carolina’s schools.  In an effort to prevent an adverse court decision in Briggs, the legislature passed a three-cent sales tax designed to fund improvements to black school facilities.  The Briggs case eventually merged with four other school desegregation cases on appeal before the United States Supreme Court to become part of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision (Clyburn and Revels, 35-39). 


South Carolina’s school equalization program emerged in response to a growing black challenge to the Jim Crow system.  The end of World War II brought economic, social, and racial changes to the state and the nation.  In the late 1940s the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the main organization dedicated to racial justice in the United States, initiated lawsuits in several southern states demanding racial equalization in higher education facilities to improve black education.  States such as Georgia and Mississippi began to make superficial attempts to equalize black and white schools.  Upon the recommendation of a Mississippi legislative committee appointed to study the state’s school system in 1946, Governor Thomas Bailey and the legislature approved $3 million to build public schools.  The Mississippi legislature supposedly intended the funds to be spent on black school construction, but most of the money went to white schools.  Georgia’s 1949 legislative session included a bill changing state appropriations for teacher salaries and school construction.  The bill did not provide any new funding, but required equalization of state allotments for white and black public schools (O’Brien, 57-58; Bolton, 794-795).


In spite of growing challenges to the “separate but equal” aspect of segregation, South Carolina needed to address a significant problem in the education of its primary and secondary students.  Several recently issued reports and statistics highlighted the poor state of South Carolina’s schools.  A study commissioned by Governor Burnet Maybank in 1941 reported that nineteen counties in South Carolina lacked a high school for black students while only eight buses in the state transported black children to school (Quint, 9).  In 1947, with the support of Governor Strom Thurmond, the General Assembly commissioned another statewide survey of the public school system.  The George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tennessee conducted the survey and presented their findings to the General Assembly in 1948 (Public Schools of South Carolina).


The Peabody survey revealed the inequalities between rural and urban schools as well as differences in funding, transportation, teacher training, and school facilities between black and white schools.  The statistics on school buildings reflected the extreme disparity between black and white schools both in rural and urban areas.  In 1947, the school plant investment for whites totaled approximately $221 per pupil compared to $45 per pupil for blacks.  Economic pressures during the Depression and the scarcity of building materials during World War II meant that the state constructed few schools for several decades.  Schools across the state were in varying stages of disrepair, and the differences between rural and urban schools were especially stark.  Overcrowded classrooms, overworked teachers, and the lack of running water and electricity in many of the rural schools compounded educational problems.  The survey estimated that the state and local school boards needed to invest ninety million dollars to improve school building facilities and bring South Carolina’s schools close to the national average in school buildings and equipment (Public Schools of South Carolina, 192-208).


After his election as governor, James Byrnes revealed details of his educational plan to improve South Carolina’s schools to the General Assembly on 24 January 1951.  Governor Byrnes based his recommendations on the 1948 Peabody survey and a 1950 report from the South Carolina House of Representatives supporting a sales tax to fund educational improvements.  Byrnes recommended a three-cent sales tax to fund a statewide school building program.  He also recommended a bond issue of $75 million to provide immediate money for the educational program.  The General Assembly would use the proceeds from the sales tax to pay the interest and principal on these bonds.  While a sales tax and bond issue would lessen the disparities between black and white schools and improve education, the General Assembly had not supported sales taxes in the past.  Byrnes’ educational improvements could stall without the approval of the legislators (Byrnes Papers: “Address”).


Byrnes received the General Assembly’s support for his three-cent school tax after a legal threat to South Carolina’s racially segregated schools.  In 1949, encouraged by the leadership of Reverend J.A. DeLaine and the support of the NAACP, black parents in the Summerton area of Clarendon County filed a petition with the local school district.  This petition requested equal school facilities and equipment for black children in Summerton.  The petitioners insisted on their right to equal educational opportunities, although many suffered harsh economic reprisals implemented by whites in the Summerton area. On 17 May 1950, undeterred by the white response in Clarendon, the NAACP filed the school equalization case known as Briggs v. Elliott in the federal district court in Charleston, South Carolina (Kluger, 18-25).


The case, as originally filed, accused white Clarendon County school officials of refusing to uphold the law requiring that segregated facilities be equal.  Judge J. Waites Waring, the federal district court judge assigned to Briggs v. Elliott, conferred with attorney Thurgood Marshall after Marshall filed the suit.  Waring believed that Marshall and the NAACP should challenge the system of segregation itself, and encouraged Marshall to refile the case to reflect an attack on segregation.  After debate within the NAACP over the chances of winning the case based on desegregation as opposed to equalization, Marshall refiled Briggs v. Elliott and went to trial on 28 May 1951 before a three-judge panel (Kluger, 72-73).  Whites in Clarendon County needed Byrnes’ school equalization program to support their claim that South Carolina met the standards of the “separate but equal” precedent that had allowed segregated schools.


South Carolina’s white politicians scrambled to put Byrnes’ proposed legislation in place to bolster their defense of segregation.  Attorney Robert McCormick Figg, counsel for the Clarendon County school district in the lawsuit, relied heavily on the promise of increased funding for black schools in preparing his defense before the federal district court.  To counter the plaintiffs’ key point of unequal school facilities, Figg needed to prove to the court that the state was committed to equalizing black and white schools.  Figg pressured Byrnes to pass the equalization bond issue and sales tax before the Briggs case went to trial.  The bill became law one month before the trial began, and the State Educational Finance Commission, created to administer the equalization funds, began meeting only three weeks before Figg had to argue his case before the district court (Kluger, 344-345).


The 1951 appropriations act incorporated recommendations from the 1947 Peabody survey and numerous educational planning guides in an effort to enhance the administration of South Carolina’s schools in addition to providing funding for new construction.  Following national trends in educational administration and planning, the General Assembly required counties to consolidate schools and districts, abolished all local boards of education with less than seven members, and required newly-created school districts to survey the building and educational needs of their schools before receiving money from the state.  The State Educational Finance Commission supervised these changes and reviewed applications for building funds.  The commission was to oversee “the needs for new construction, new equipment, new transportation facilities, and such other improvements as are necessary to enable all children of South Carolina to have adequate and equal educational advances.”  A state-controlled, centralized agency ensured that funds would be used for equalization purposes to maintain segregation (Byrnes Papers: “Excerpts from”).


Citizens of both races across the state opposed the new sales tax.  White citizens resented paying taxes to support black schools.  Other whites believed that the school building campaign and the sales tax did not need to be implemented until the court ruled in the Briggs v. Elliott case.  A group of businessmen filed an unsuccessful suit against Governor James Byrnes and the Educational Finance Commission challenging the constitutionality of the sales tax and bond referendum.  Merchants opposed the extra paperwork and bureaucracy imposed by the sales tax.  Both black and white citizens of South Carolina requested that food and clothing be exempt from the tax to ease the burden on poorer taxpayers.  The Lighthouse and Informer, an African-American newspaper based in Columbia, criticized taxing poor black citizens to pay for a “theory politically conceived some 53 years ago aimed at Negroes” (“The Byrnes Tax”).  Black political leaders opposed the tax and the equalization program because the tax was devised in response to the Briggs case.  Byrnes dismissed African-American concerns as misplaced. When the voters of South Carolina reelected about eighty-two percent of the incumbents to the General Assembly, Byrnes felt he had “proof of [the] intelligent and patriotic attitude of the people” toward his education program (Byrnes Papers: “Third Annual Message”).


Although the purpose of the sales tax was to prevent desegregation, the appropriations act did incorporate provisions for educational change and improvements.  The act required counties to survey their existing school plants to assist in planning new construction.  Surveys ensured that districts planned schools according to population needs.  Counties also submitted plans for consolidation of districts and schools within the county.  Consolidation reduced administrative costs and improved efficiency in school administration.  The Educational Finance Commission approved the survey and consolidation plans of each county.  To oversee and implement these requirements, the commission hired former superintendent of Sumter schools Dr. E.R. Crow as its director.  In addition to directing the surveys and consolidation plans, Crow’s duties also included speaking to the press on behalf of the commission, compiling statistics and reports for members of the commission, and even testifying in the Briggs v. Elliott case on behalf of the school equalization program.  The equalization program moved quickly and by October 1952 forty-two counties filed district reorganization plans.  At the end of statewide consolidation the number of school districts in South Carolina fell from 1,220 to 102 (State Educational Finance Commission, 1).


Many local school board officials and parents resisted the changes imposed by the equalization program.  School board trustees, many of whom lost their positions, opposed the consolidation of schools and districts.  Because a state agency, the Educational Finance Commission, administered the funds for the new building program, many school officials and politicians resented the loss of local political control over the distribution of state funds.  In 1953, the South Carolina Senate unsuccessfully proposed returning control over school construction plans to the counties.  Schools, no matter how small, often provided community centers for rural areas, so many small towns and communities opposed consolidation and closing the schools in their district.  Furthermore, consolidation meant that more children would need transportation to school. Many parents protested the bus routes, especially the commission’s directive that no child within a one-and-a-half mile radius would be eligible for state-supported transportation (“School Building Return”).


The school equalization program authorized state oversight on transportation and building equalization projects, yet the Educational Finance Commission relied on local school board officials to survey the needs of their schools and apply for sufficient funds to equalize schools.  Some districts built black schools and did not appropriate enough money to furnish equipment for the new schools. Others balked at even building schools for blacks. For example, officials did not fully complete a building project in Saluda.  The new black school lacked a planned wing providing twelve additional classrooms and lacked adequate equipment.  Administrators in Charleston County refused to authorize construction of an additional black high school to replace one that had previously closed (NAACP Papers, Part 3, Series C, reel 2; Brown, 74).


The major obstacle to the school equalization programs and educational reform on the local level stemmed from the resistance of local school officials.  Local officials refused to supplement the statewide equalization campaign by appropriating local funds to support equalization.  Furthermore, white officials and parents wanted to secure funds solely for white school building projects.  The Educational Finance Commission responded by denying many local requests for funding because the school district had not addressed the needs of black schools.  The commission refused to authorize white school construction projects for a district if the district had not filed plans for black school construction.  Many local officials opposed equalization to the point where they did not apply for any funding from the state.  In Lee County, the first building construction project did not occur until 1953, two years after the state began granting funds.  To combat the maneuverings of local white school officials, the Educational Finance Commission maintained their right to approve or disapprove building projects to ensure equalization.  In addition to school officials’ reluctance to fund black school improvements, many districts reduced funding in other areas.  Although the state continually raised its appropriations for teacher salaries, many local school boards decreased their allotments to teachers, resulting in very few teachers benefiting from a raise in salary (Byrnes Collection: “Address”; “Contract for”).


Despite the millions of dollars spent throughout South Carolina on school equalization, the state’s effort to forestall an adverse court decision failed.  On 17 May 1954 the United States Supreme Court ruled segregation in the public schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, which had incorporated South Carolina’s Briggs v. Elliott desegregation suit.  For South Carolina’s black citizens, this decision encouraged the civil rights movement and the fight for equal rights and treatment, especially within the educational system in the state (Kluger). 


South Carolina continued its two-part strategy to prevent an implementation of the Supreme Court decision by equalizing school facilities and attempting to legally evade the impact of Brown.  The school equalization program provided South Carolina’s white leaders with political justification for resisting the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate.  Many leaders, including Byrnes, believed equal schools would satisfy many black South Carolinians.  Some blacks did want equal, segregated schools, as long as the state continued to provide money for new school construction and equipment.  Black teachers, concerned about job loss if the Supreme Court integrated the schools, often supported equalization as opposed to integration (Synott, 52).  The state’s white politicians recognized this split in the black community between supporters of equalization and supporters of integration and worked to turn it to political advantage.  As long as blacks did not push for massive school desegregation, the state would continue to fund its public schools and the building program.  Byrnes warned that “if Negroes should then desert their colored teachers, seek to attend white schools, and as a result our public school system be endangered, the responsibility for that tragedy will rest upon them.” (Byrnes Papers: “Annual Message”).


Nevertheless, shortly after the Brown decision, Byrnes halted all equalization building projects and approvals until the state attorney general ruled on the legality of state money supporting schools designated as “black” or “white.”  Byrnes expressed his concern that the state would continue to spend money “for the purpose of equalizing school facilities between the races, [which] has now been prohibited by the Supreme Court.” (Byrnes Papers: “James F. Byrnes to Julian H. Kuhne”).  Byrnes stated his belief in a closed session with the South Carolina School Committee, the legislative committee established to maintain racial segregation, that if desegregation came to South Carolina, whites would send their children to private schools, and the money the state spent on schools would be wasted.  Publicly, however, Byrnes encouraged the citizens of the state to continue to support equalization, confident that South Carolina would find legal ways to maintain segregation and the public school system ( Byrnes Papers: “Minutes of the South Carolina School Committee,” 15 June 1954).


In response to Byrnes’ stop-work order, the School Committee began speaking with educators and citizens about the school building program.  The committee met with representatives of the state NAACP to gauge the organization’s opinion on the building program.  A representative stated that “he felt that the building program should be continued because the children must have schools but that he felt also that there should be some Negroes on the Educational Finance Commission and on the local boards of education.”  He did not comment on the issue of integration or equalization.  The Palmetto State Teachers’ Association, an organization of black educators, also believed that the building campaign should continue to improve school facilities (Byrnes Papers: “Minutes of the S.C. School Committee,” 14 July 1954).


One white school official also urged resuming the building program, stating that “stopping the program places [South Carolina] in a bad light and the program is just as right now as it ever was.”  White educators stated the widely-held belief that “if we have equal facilities, ninety-nine out of one hundred negroes will want to go to segregated schools.”  A Richland County school official, concerned that his district’s project for the construction of a black high school affected by the stop-order could lead to a desegregation lawsuit since the school district had no high school for black students, also supported continuing the building program as a way to maintain segregation in his school district (Byrnes Papers: “Minutes of the S.C. School Committee,” 23 June 1954, 15 July 1954).


Dr. C.A. Johnson, the sole black member of the Educational Finance Commission, also spoke before the School Committee on the views of South Carolina blacks and school equalization.  Johnson, hired after the NAACP revealed in the Briggs testimony that the commission had no black members, explained to the School Committee that “his work is to contact Negroes all over the State where construction projects are proposed or in progress to get the Negroes’ views.”  Johnson dutifully reported to the committee that blacks wanted equal school facilities, and the only opposition came from state NAACP president James Hinton and “his crowd…because they know that if ample facilities are provided, the Negroes are going to be satisfied.”  While Johnson’s statement about Hinton reinforced white beliefs that blacks wanted equalization instead of integration, Johnson also identified the dissatisfaction with the equalization program among blacks in Charleston and in Beaufort, who did not feel that the schools in those cities were truly equal (Byrnes Papers: “Minutes of the S.C. School Committee,” 15 July 1954).  Fearing that continued black dissatisfaction could lead to a desegregation lawsuit, the School Committee hoped to resume the program.


After hearing testimony from both whites and blacks, the committee recommended that the state resume the school equalization program.  On 16 July 1954, the Educational Finance Commission reinstated the list of projects previously awaiting approval and funding.  However, the commission required local officials to resurvey the location of the projects pending approval in each district to determine “whether or not the sites for schools selected before the Supreme Court decision were still believed to be the best locations.”  School officials ensured that the new surveys located new black schools near the majority of their students, so that black children would not have to walk past a white school to attend classes and give the NAACP a reason to sue for desegregation (Byrnes Papers: “News Statement”).


Byrnes and the legislature continued to support the equalization program in the aftermath of the Brown decision.  In 1955, the legislature approved a bond increase to $137,500,000, providing approximately $62,000,000 more revenue for school buildings. By the time Byrnes left the governor’s office in 1955, the school building program that he helped implement in 1951 had significantly changed South Carolina’s educational system.  His sales tax and school equalization program spent $124,329,394.11 for school construction.  The Educational Finance Commission allocated two-thirds of these funds to improve and construct black schools (State Educational Finance Commission, 1).


Although South Carolina’s school equalization program failed to prevent a Supreme Court ruling for desegregation, the program continued to provide South Carolina’s white leaders with political justification for resisting the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate as part of a broader effort to avoid integration throughout society.  George Bell Timmerman, Jr., Byrnes’ successor in the governor’s office, continued to support the school building program: “I strongly recommend that we continue our equalization program in good faith.  In no better way can we preserve good schools with peace and friendly relations.” (Timmerman Papers: “A Speech Prepared”).  By the time Timmerman assumed office in 1955, the Educational Finance Commission had approved approximately 775 school building projects (“Text of Timmerman’s Address”).


By 1955, the Educational Finance Commission and many educators believed that black schools were substantially equal to white schools.  Every school district in the state had a black high school completed or under construction.  The Educational Finance Commission pushed for all approved black high schools to open for the 1955-1956 school year.  Because of the Briggs case and possible outcomes, the first years of the program ensured black elementary and high school projects had precedence over other needed construction (Byrnes Papers: “E.R. Crow”; “Text of Timmerman’s Address”).  As districts finished construction of and improvement in black schools, the commission funded more white school construction projects.  By 1963, the year black Charlestonians won their legal fight to desegregate their public school system, the funds distributed for building projects had relatively equalized between the races.  The Educational Finance Commission had approved over $214 million in building projects since the inception of the program, with 53.9 percent of the total funds appropriated for white schools and 46.1 percent of the funds appropriated for black schools.  In 1966 the state Department of Education assumed the roles and responsibilities of the Educational Finance Commission (Hollings Papers; Kirk, 58).


While the school equalization legislation fulfilled Governor Byrnes’ promise to reform education in the state through the reorganization of school districts and the consolidation of small, ineffective schools, problems remained. They included overcrowding and lack of teachers, equipment, and facilities, none of which were completely addressed by the program.  School enrollment did increase, and the number of students staying in school until graduation increased from ten percent in 1945 to twenty percent in 1953 (Ramsaur, 98).  The program constructed new black schools, but many of these schools lacked libraries, gymnasiums, and athletic fields commonly provided to white schools.  Furthermore, the school equalization program concentrated on equalizing buildings and provided no state control over the amount of local appropriations spent on schools, no oversight over the equalization of curricula between black and white schools, and little control over the routes of bus transportation.  The equalization program addressed the structural inequalities in South Carolina’s schools, but it did not remedy decades of underfunding and lack of state support of black education.


Many of the over 700 “equalization” schools still exist as of the writing of this paper.  Some remain in use as schools, while others are now Head Start centers, daycares, businesses, community centers, or offices.  Other schools stand abandoned or were demolished for newer schools.  For more information on the equalization program, the schools constructed, and a partial list of the schools, see



Rebekah Dobrasko is a historian with the South Carolina State Historic Preservation Office in the Department of Archives and History.  She may be contacted at





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